One Solitary Man
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The Fidelity High School basketball team was in the middle of a losing streak and the miners living along Rock Creek had had enough. They could put up with explosions, rockfalls, and methane leaks, but they were tired of seeing visiting teams board the train back to Stearns with smirks on their faces while their own boys slunk away in disgrace and shame. The problem was obvious. The team needed a new coach. They turned to William O. Gilreath for help.
William O. “Bill” Gilreath was Superintendent of McCreary County Schools. He was also a businessman and he managed the school system as a business. When the disgruntled coal miners of Fidelity brought their concerns to him, he approached the dilemma as a businessman. He would use his business sense to solve the problem. He would find a good coach and make him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Arthur W. Holmes was teaching and coaching at Hiseville, Kentucky when he received the call from Superintendent Gilreath. As one of “Uncle” Ed Diddle’s star athletes at Western Kentucky State Teacher’s College, he knew basketball as few coaches knew it. So, when Gilreath offered him the job of serving as Principal of Fidelity High School in return for coaching the school’s basketball team, he lost no time in accepting. Gilreath had made Holmes the offer he couldn’t refuse. Thus it came to be that, in 1935, Arthur W. Holmes and his wife, Virginia, came to McCreary County and made it their home. They would never leave.
For the next eighteen years, A.W., as he was popularly known, taught and coached in the McCreary County school system, racking up a record of notable wins on the basketball court and a roster of men and women whose achievements in life could be directly attributed to the influence of their old teacher and coach. In addition to working as a teacher and coach, and to support his family, Holmes opened an auto dealership in Whitley City and developed a reputation for honesty and integrity.
Soon after opening his dealership, Holmes joined the McCreary County Development Association. This loosely-knit organization was an arm of the Fiscal Court and sought to improve the lot of McCreary Countians by bringing in sources of employment. When Holmes became a member, he brought two items to the table. The first was a level of energy and determination that had not been present in the Association until he arrived on the scene. The second was a dream. Holmes’s dream was to create a public water system for all of McCreary County.
Making it possible for every citizen in McCreary County to have access to clean and affordable drinking water was an idea that had occupied the agile mind of A.W. Holmes since his arrival in the county. His many years spent in the classrooms of isolated schools had led him to believe that bad water was the source of many of the physical ailments of our people. Moreover, he knew that a good public water system was crucial if the county wished to attract industry and its associated sources of employment for the county’s labor force. In his manner of thinking, the Development Association could perform no greater service to the people of McCreary County than to yoke itself to his dream and turn it into a material blessing that would benefit countless unborn generations long after each member of the Association had gone on to his eternal reward.
The Association responded to Holmes’s plea for help by reminding him that efforts toward achieving his goal had been made before, but the results had not been promising. Nothing had been accomplished and no hope that anything would ever be accomplished lay on the horizon.
Although discouraged, A.W. Holmes remained optimistic and began a search for ways to get a public water system off the ground. Then, in 1962, he saw light at the end of his proverbial tunnel. In that year, Federal money became available for projects such as that envisioned by him under the Accelerated Public Works Act. He lost no time in bringing this good news to the other members of the Association.
In 1963, the McCreary County Development Association changed its legal status and became an independent, non-profit corporation. Arthur W. Holmes was elected Executive Vice-President of the Corporation with the primary duty of securing funding for a water system. Incorporating the Association was a simple, but critical move. Not only did it remove the Association from the oversight of the Fiscal Court, but it, also, enabled the Association to qualify for Federal grants and loans. Free from political constraints, A.W. Holmes intended to make good use of his new opportunity to turn his dream into a reality.
Holmes set up an office in Whitley City and got down to business. His first task was to begin collecting tap-in fees from the residents of Marshes Siding, Whitley City, Revelo, and Pine Knot, with the intention of submitting them as proof that McCreary County was sincere in its effort to build a water system. The response to the tap-in was phenomenal.
Throughout the following year, Holmes worked tirelessly to get the infrastructure of the water system in place and encourage citizens to tap onto it. In barber shops, country stores, and funeral homes, he preached his message of clean water with the fervor and enthusiasm of an evangelist. Then, in October, 1964, Senator John Sherman Cooper came down to Whitley City and announced that the McCreary County Water District had been approved for a grant in an amount totaling $265,000.00. Sherman noted that the grant would not have to be repaid, but was a gift to the people of McCreary County.
In his wonderful book, A LOST HERITAGE FOR A CHANGING PEOPLE, my dear friend and comrade, Robert E. Stephens, tells what happened next:
“He (Holmes) supervised the construction of the McCreary County Water Treatment Plant, the water office in Whitley City, and the hardest part, which was the installation of the water lines. He stayed with the men as they worked to see that the lines were buried deep enough to prevent freezing and considering the fact that McCreary County has a very thin layer of top soil above a very hard Rockcastle sandstone, it was no easy job. . .Later, when a break would occur, A.W. was with the employees as they repaired the damage. Every night, after work, he would go to the Reservoir Plant and Pumping Station to check the facilities and test the water. As with all new ventures, there were many problems to be solved. People would complain about something, but he was always courteous to everyone. He did the work with little pay, as there was no funding for salaries. It was a monumental task, but A.W. Holmes got the job done.”
The creation of a public water system was the most significant civic improvement made in McCreary County since the creation of the county in 1912. Although many individuals contributed to the success of the endeavor, in one form or another, due credit must be given to Arthur W. Holmes. It is a fact that, without this one, solitary man, it is possible that, even today, we would be drawing our drinking water from wells and dipping it into buckets at a nearby spring. Unfortunately, Holmes never got to see the result of his many sacrifices. He suffered a massive heart attack in 1971 and died at the age of 63. God rest his soul and may we McCreary Countians never forget him.